by Ruth Linsky
Each year, as the rains cease and the long, hot, dry days pile up on top of each other like a pile of kindling, OFI faces one of the most difficult challenges to protecting orangutans and their forest habitat: the fires.
This year is no exception. The fires are here and they are bad. In fact, the fires are exceptionally bad this year.
The weather forecasters have been predicting a record-breaking El Nino season for the last few years. On the west coast of the United States, El Nino is known as the bringer of heavy, unexpected rains. In Borneo, El Nino has the opposite
effect. It brings parched, arid, and exceptional droughts to the island. As the skies around Pasir Panjang and the Orangutan Legacy Forest are increasingly filled with smoke, it seems El Nino has arrived in all its power. The fires are not limited. The whole of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) is smothered in smoke.
The haze is pervasive. The smoke is so thick it blocks out the sun. Morning fog does not fade away and midday darkness has been the norm for weeks now. It has rained only two days in the last six weeks. The little rain that did come was sparse and fleeting. It was not enough to dampen the soil or penetrate the peat that lies beneath much of the forest in Borneo, including a large area of OFI's Orangutan Legacy Forest. It is the peat that makes fighting fires here exceptionally difficult. Peat soil is soft and our staff's feet sink as they try to walk; in some places, they are pulled in to their knees. It is a challenge to avoid falling or stepping in areas that are still hot from recent blazes. Carrying hoses and fire-fighting supplies across this peat soil to get them where they're needed is dangerous. Not to mention, peat soil itself is flammable. In a peat swamp forest, it is not only the plants and trees that burn: the ground itself can go up in flames! As the peat may be a few meters deep, embers remain underground for days after we put out the flames above the ground. The embers slowly creep under the ground, traveling to other areas, and setting them aflame.
Each day OFI's firefighting team assess the situation. Team members are deployed to the areas with the most urgent need. Generators, hoses, pumps, drinking water and gasoline are stacked into trucks and delivered to the staff already in the field. Once they arrive in the field, these supplies often have to be carried by foot to the site of the fire. In the challenging conditions, it can take hours to cross several kilometers to reach the fires. Access to these remote forest fire areas is further complicated as they are surrounded by degraded and abandoned mining areas pitted with sand and dangerous sink holes. Our drivers are constantly searching for new and better trails and access points to get people and supplies to where they need to be but sometimes it's impossible to utilize vehicles and firefighters have to simply walk, carrying supplies on their backs.